Logan, the latest (and maybe last, but you know how money talks) Wolverine-centric film in the X-Men franchise, contains one of the most jarring moments I’ve ever felt in a superhero movie. It takes place after an unhurried sequence in the middle of the story in which our heroes stop to rest at the farmhouse of kind strangers. Sharing a meal, they enjoy quietly the generosity offered by this kind, warm, family of normal people. For a gentle pause, they aren’t mutants on the run in a hard-charging action movie. They simply exist in the world. When violence crashes back into the picture it crashes hard. There’s a mad scientist, an evil clone, shotguns and decapitations. The whiplash is harsh, discordant. I found I had been so involved in the humanity, the real character, of the prior sequence I was suddenly resisting the intrusion of genre dictates. But that’s part of the film’s gutting approach, with glum pessimism leaving barely enough energy to squeeze itself into the expected clichés that come with a cinematic superhero suit. It’s small-scale, soft-spoken, and soulful.
Inspired by the darkest and bloodiest of Wolverine comics, writer-director James Mangold (with co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green) makes a bracing, atypical vision, with stretched anamorphic subtlety in the staging and stubborn downbeat grime in the mood. (This is certainly less colorful than his Japanese-set The Wolverine.) For a while it’s quite exhilarating to knock about in a far future (yet too close for comfort) world where the X-Men are gone for unexplained reasons and mutant kind is slowly dying out. Once rare, now rarer, no new mutant has been born in two decades. Natural born, that is. The plot hinges on Laura (Dafne Keen), an 11-year-old test tube mutant fleeing the evil corporation that made her. Its lead scientist (Richard E. Grant) wants to make gene-spliced lab-grown soldiers from the greatest hits of X-genes. But now one young subject has escaped, and she ends up running into an exhausted Logan (Hugh Jackman) and half-senile Professor X (Patrick Stewart) hiding out in the middle of nowhere at the U.S./Mexican border. A mercenary (Boyd Holbrook) with a bionic hand gives chase, and the tired old pair of marquee mutants must once more do all they can to save the future of their kind.
Placed at the far worst-case-scenario end of the film franchise’s timeline, this entry has a sorrowful finality about it. Not a grand ensemble epic, this is instead a sad and lonely chase picture, imagining the dwindling mutant population as a demonized, hunted minority. Average folks see them as a distant memory immortalized in comic book legends of yore. Corporations are deputized to round them up, hound them to extinction, and extract monetized power from them all the way there. Mangold and company take this all very seriously (or, rather, as seriously as you can while still including an evil clone). It’s bleak, watching characters we love like Jackman’s Wolverine and Stewart’s Professor X miserable and weary, on the precipice of giving up or death, whichever comes first. Because we’ve seen these great performers inhabit these roles for nearly twenty years now, there’s tremendous audience affection on which to draw, making their plight only more poignant. The early going emphasizes their isolation, pushing them into corners of the frames, surrounded by crumbling structures or grotesque “normality.” When the mute young mutant shows up needing help, the tremor of sentimentality, of hope for the future, feels life sustaining.
Cranking the gore up way past PG-13 and well into R, the line on which the previous movies about a mostly-immortal healing beast man with metal claw hands were already dancing, the movie takes an interest in imagining the toll a life of superhero violence would take on a person. Add to that the sense of despair over a history of fighting for your cohort’s safety and ending up with nothing to show for it, the movie’s core of physical, psychological, and moral exhaustion is often harrowing. Affecting, mournful, and with genuine surprise and sorrow behind its deaths gives many a bloody slice and stab its due weight. Where most superhero movies take violence as mindless sensory overload, the X-movies have often been embodied, concerned with the horror of mutation and the squirming ways the human body can turn on itself. This one in particular feeds its exciting action sequences with simple staging and brisk splatter. Wolverine is a reluctant hero, here at his most reluctant, a feature-length version of his answer to the question asked about his claws in 2000’s X-Men: “When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”
That Mangold can pull it off while still spinning a crowd-pleasingly amusing, exciting actioner is a testament to the resiliency and elasticity of the franchise, and the willingness of cast and crew to put real heart into the slow, simple, quiet moments. Jackman’s Wolverine has always had a wounded soul beneath his star-power charisma, and here he lays it bare. He’s raw, scraping together just enough power for one last good deed. It’s a fitting tribute to the character to make what may be his farewell to the role with such a considered, complicated, and, yes, mature, performance. His scenes with Stewart crackle with genuine affection and history. Their new dependent is a wild animal when provoked (revealing a kinship between the old warrior and the young fugitive). The three of them just might make it to safety, but what then? The end-of-the-line futility gives even the fleeting moments of goodness and sweetness a sour aftertaste. The film has a compelling commitment to a certain slicing serenity, suspense visceral and absorbing yet filtered through a state of zen weariness. It knows we’re all dying, the world is collapsing, and nothing will ever again be as good as it once seemed. But maybe it’s worth trying every day to make sure children are equipped with the opportunities to do better than us with what little we can leave them.